Trust in elections in different countries around the world has eroded in recent years, with accusations of manipulation via the Internet and social media and reports of foreign interference in polls becoming increasingly common. This is among the issues examined in the latest UN report on elections, which Under-Secretary-General Rosemary DiCarlo presented to a General Assembly panel on 14 October.
“The paralyzing suspicion that any information or discourse can be or has been manipulated, leading to the erosion of trust, lies at the heart of the Internet’s challenge to democracy,” said Rosemary DiCarlo, UN Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and the world body’s coordinator for the provision of electoral assistance. Ms. DiCarlo’s remarks came as she introduced the Secretary-General’s latest report on “Strengthening the Role of the United Nations in Enhancing the Effectiveness of the Principle of Periodic and Genuine Elections and the Promotion of Democratization” before the General Assembly’s Third Committee.
In response to such threats, the report notes, a balanced approach is required, one that recognizes that there is nothing inherently negative about digital technology and online communication per se – the question is the way in which they are used. A focus on building the resilience of societies to handle potentially false, emotive and incendiary content spread online and through social media, including by promoting critical thinking and digital literacy and supporting professional journalism is needed to counter this trend.
The Secretary-General’s report also showcases the breadth and complexity of UN electoral activities around the globe. Between 1 August 2017 to 31 July 2019, the UN has assisted over 50 Member States in conducting elections, at their request or on the basis of a Security Council mandate. UN support is mainly provided in the form of technical assistance or the strengthening of the capacity of national electoral authorities.
Experience has shown that confidence in elections is shaped by factors that go beyond the technical quality of an electoral process. It is political leaders, from both government and opposition parties, who bear the overriding responsibility for successful elections. “Both those who end up winning and those who are defeated face the choice of reaffirming public trust in their country’s democratic system or undermining belief in its legitimacy,” Ms. DiCarlo stressed in her remarks.
Winning magnanimously entails recognizing that a part of the electorate preferred another candidate or party, giving appropriate political space to such different views and refraining from monopolizing a hold on State institutions or harassing opponents. Losing graciously after a credible process involves refraining from broad, potentially provocative comments about an “illegitimate” election without sufficient evidence.
Ms. DiCarlo also highlighted the slow progress on women’s representation in elected and appointed positions. Since 1997, the percentage of women in lower or single houses of parliament worldwide almost doubled, from 12.4% to 24.3% in 2019. Although encouraging, clearly more needs to be done, in both developing and developed countries, to improve the situation, she added.
For more on our role in providing electoral assistance, watch this animation.
Title picture: Ballots and ballot stamp. Pakistan, 2018. Photo: UNDP Strengthening Electoral and Legislative Processes (SELP) Project, Pakistan